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Two Black Female Authors Discuss Writing, Life, And Loss

Two Black Female Authors Discuss Writing, Life, And Loss

Sarah M. Broom (right) and Nicole Dennis-Benn, two of the most celebrated LGBTQ writers working today, share their takes on everything from colorism to classism.

Critics and readers have fallen in love with author Sarah M. Broom's ambitious new memoir, The Yellow House. The Whiting Foundation, which awarded Broom its Creative Nonfiction Grant in 2016, argues that the engrossing story -- which covers 100 years of the author's family history in New Orleans -- is set to "become a modern classic."

Meanwhile, Patsy, Jamaican-American author Nicole Dennis-Benn's highly anticipated follow-up to her Lambda Award-winning debut novel, Here Comes the Sun, was released in June to high acclaim. The New York Times called Patsy a "novel that continually and subtly defies predictability as it tells a vital and remarkable life story."

As two of today's hottest Black queer female writers, Broom and Dennis-Benn came together -- with The Advocate along for the ride -- to discuss their latest works and the different cultures and experiences that shaped them as artists and human beings, including the complexities of race, motherhood, and sexuality.

Nicole Dennis-Benn: I was 17 when I moved [from Jamaica] to the U.S.

Sarah M. Broom: I grew up [in New Orleans], and it was kind of like I never left, you know. I'm one of 12 children, so that means someone is always there, or having something there. I technically left for college in Texas when I was 17 or so.... Yes, the same age. Which is so interesting, right, having sort of read through your book -- and I love these characters, Nicole! I thought so much about the way you talk about home and place, and go through the trauma of leaving, or staying, right? Both can be traumatic in some ways for some people.

Dennis-Benn: It's so interesting because when I started writing I didn't really [intend] to write against what people perceived Jamaica to be. It just really came out, visiting the island again as a tourist, and of course I was reading [The Yellow House] -- the part, Sarah, where you return as a tourist yourself. So it was actually then in 2010 that I realized that... there's so many perceptions about who we are as a people, you know, our narrative, and so in these stories I wanted to really explore these complexities. So this time around, people won't [see Jamaicans] as just Bob Marley music, we smoke weed -- but now seeing that we do have complex stories, especially as working class Jamaican women. We're part of that fantasy really, when the culture is seen as a paradise.

Broom: Yeah, I really understand that so much, Nicole, because it's like we both come from these places that have enormous stories around them, you know, and those stories are sold as a way to make money for the place. And I think sometimes the actual citizens... they're sort of suffocating in a way, by the mythology of the place. So it's wonderful to see your characters, because you really get underneath the story, you know.

Dennis-Benn: Coming [to the U.S.], I really came for so many different reasons, and among them was definitely the homophobia. I wasn't out when I left Jamaica. I actually came out when I came here to the United States. But there [in Jamaica], I also experienced colorism and classism, and I think those two things were actually more of a burden.... I started internalizing a lot of things. It was during my senior year in school and I went to this all-girls school where the majority of the girls were lighter-skin Black and very wealthy girls, and I always felt like I was ostracized.... Coming from a working-class family, never thinking, like, I would amount to anything more than the secretary, because you know [in Jamaica], the class system is so rigid...and that was also jarring, to come here as an immigrant, like, I'm going to accomplish the American dream -- and not really unpacking what that is.

Broom: I think I was lucky because I didn't grow up with this idea in my head that somehow the North was free of blame and this wonderful place where when you arrive all your problems will be solved.... The Southern thing I think requires that it be quieter, right, people are a little more passive-aggressive about it, a little subtler.... [The racism] was bolder to me in the North.

Dennis-Benn: I know, in Patsy, I really blatantly explore that theme. Here is this woman who is trying to find her place in the world -- and she does it by leaving Jamaica, coming to America, chasing that dream that I just described, that fantasy of what America is.... Patsy feels the need to go and be with Cicely. She leaves her daughter, Tru, behind. And really with that -- Patsy not being able to mother -- it's a role she never really expected to have and she's not really able to play very well, and felt it was best to leave because she doesn't have anything to offer Tru. I wanted to also tap into that given -- it's a taboo issue everywhere, but for our culture, for Jamaican women, if you don't have children by the age of 25, the questions are being asked: "When's that going to happen? What's going on? Are you barren?" And here's a woman now who's saying to herself first, then to the world, that she does not want to be a mother.

Broom: I loved that so much about Patsy. And I guess thinking about my own mother, it's an interesting question because this is someone who was born in 1941, had 12 children that she raised, and I write in the book about how she wasn't able to finish school because she would be a bad example -- and that for me is very connected to the idea that the mother has sort of evolved.

You know, my mother bought a house at 19 years old and this connects very strongly for me about what the American dream means. You can get the quote "American Dream," but then how do you maintain that? And often the sustaining of it is impossible for many people.

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